I have always admired Jeffrey Goldberg and Jonathan Chait for their generally thoughtful commentary on the Middle East and their refusal to follow in the footsteps of more knee-jerk pro-Israel commentators.
On Friday and over the weekend, Goldberg and Chait responded to a Yediot Ahronoth story claiming to have unearthed evidence of Richard Goldstone's past as an apartheid-era judge, digesting it almost completely uncritically.
Goldberg wrote: "It turns out that this hero of the anti-Israel left...sentenced twenty-eight blacks to hang for criminal offenses." Meanwhile, Chait seized upon Yediot's "finding" that: "In another incident, Goldstone sentenced two young black men merely for being in possession of a video tape showing a speech given by one of the senior officials in Nelson Mandela's party." (The results of Yediot's "investigation" are not news in South Africa, where Goldstone's record is public and well-known.)
Goldberg's and Chait's ongoing blog posts on the latest Goldstone uproar betray what is at best a naively ahistorical approach to current events and at worst a willful blindness to Israel's own sordid history of supporting a white supremacist regime.
After all, Israel was the most significant arms supplier to that regime throughout the 1980s and served as a lifeline for the apartheid government during a period when Pretoria faced growing international condemnation and heightened domestic unrest (i.e. protests by 80 percent of the population demanding their democratic rights).
Anyone who served in the Israeli army during the late 1980s, as Goldberg did, should be well aware of this history.
During these years, military intelligence officials from the two countries held annual intelligence-sharing conferences and South African military representatives came to the West Bank to view the anti-riot equipment the Israeli army was using against Palestinians. When foreign journalists in the West Bank encountered visiting South African military officials, the Israeli military censor was quickly ordered to hush it up. Back in South Africa, a large contingent of Israeli rocketry experts was holed up in the seaside town of Arniston helping the South African government put the finishing touches on ballistic missiles intended to carry its next generation of nuclear weapons.
Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin, who denounced Goldstone as "a man of double standards," because he "sentenced black people to death" appears to have some double standards of his own. Rivlin was no doubt fully informed of Israel's military alliance with South Africa during the 1980s, given that he served on the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee of the 12th Knesset from 1988-1992--a position that gave him nearly unfettered access to sensitive military documents and high-level discussions of Israel's defense doctrine. These were the peak years of arms sales to South Africa, exceeding $1.5 billion in 1988 and approximately $800 million in 1989.
In their zeal to demonize Goldstone, Chait and Goldberg miss the point that it is possible to condemn the Goldstone Report without promoting a hypocritical campaign of character assassination. To his credit, Ron Kampeas of the Capital J Blog immediately denounced this smear strategy. He noted that self-righteous Israeli propaganda replete with Nazi comparisons "exposes you to ridicule," especially given that "Israel sold arms to, traded with, in some instances allied with Apartheid South Africa," a point that does not seem to have occurred to Chait and Goldberg. Kampeas continued, "At the time, when pressed on the matter, Israeli diplomats always boiled it down to 'we take whatever friends we can get.' (And I don't remember budding diplomat Danny Ayalon sticking his neck out to say any different.)"
There are many legitimate grounds on which to criticize the Goldstone Report, but Goldstone's past is not one of them. Rather than examining the historical record, Goldberg and Chait relied exclusively on the Yediot article in passing judgment on Goldstone's early career. Their posts, and a more recent one by Ron Radosh, fail to acknowledge Goldstone's crucial role in facilitating South Africa's transition to democracy by chairing the investigative Commission on Public Violence and Intimidation from 1991-1994. Among other things, this commission exposed the apartheid government's links to a so-called Third Force--made up of government security and ex-security operatives seeking to derail peaceful democratic elections.
The Goldstone Commission's revelations outraged Nelson Mandela, leading him to conclude that F.W. de Klerk's government had organized covert death squads. (For more on this topic, read the dispatches of British journalist John Carlin, the author of the book that became the movie Invictus.) Goldstone's work earned him Mandela's respect and, in 1994, South Africa's first black president appointed Goldstone to the Constitutional Court--hardly the sort of honor the great moral icon of the 20th century would have bestowed on "a man without a moral compass," as Goldberg calls him.
Consider for a moment an imperfect but telling analogy: imagine a Chilean judge who dutifully served the Pinochet regime during the mid-1970s and then continued to sit on the bench after the country's democratic transition in 1990. After chairing commissions investigating Pinochet-era crimes, our hypothetical judge then began working for the UN and in 2004 was appointed to investigate civilian casualties during the U.S. invasion of Iraq, where he accused Americans of perpetrating war crimes. If Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney had sought to discredit the Chilean judge on the grounds that he served "Pinochet's brutal and unjust military dictatorship," every serious journalist in Washington would have simply laughed. Such sanctimony coming from the government that provided support and sustenance to Pinochet would have been dismissed as a cheap smear.
Unfortunately, Goldstone's critics are not above hypocrisy. In fact, Israeli government officials and journalists used to offer South Africans lessons on the subject.
In October 1985, as it happens, the editor of Yediot Ahronoth's weekend magazine, Aharon Shamir, came to South Africa to meet with a mid-level Foreign Ministry functionary. When the bureaucrat complained that South Africa was being denounced everywhere as undemocratic but could not risk giving blacks the vote, Shamir advised: "Give the blacks the vote very slowly. See how it works. Bit by bit. If you see that your bit by bit approach is not working, change it. But make the world believe you are sincere. You have to be hypocritical to survive."
Sasha Polakow-Suransky is a Senior Editor at Foreign Affairs. His book, The Unspoken Alliance: Israel's Secret Relationship with Apartheid South Africa, will be published by Pantheon on May 25. Pre-order it here.